Making words sing

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 May, 2011, 12:00am


The drama's the thing for Hong Kong playwright Candace Chong Mui-ngam - except that this time, it's an opera. The esteemed playwright, who has seen success with works like French Kiss and Murder In San Jose - both commissions for the Hong Kong Arts Festival - has just finished the libretto for a new opera about 'the father of modern China' Sun Yat-sen. Written in collaboration with US-based composer Huang Ruo, Sun Yat-sen is scheduled to premiere at Beijing's National Centre for the Performing Arts in September. The production will play the Hong Kong Cultural Centre in October before moving to Guangzhou.

It's Chong's first libretto, and she seems intrigued by the idea of having her words sung rather than spoken.

'It was amazing for me to hear someone singing my words,' she says after hearing a rehearsal of the first act in the bowels of New York's monumental Lincoln Centre - rehearsals are taking place in New York, as part of the Vox Contemporary American Opera Lab.

'The first time I heard the singers perform the libretto, I thought it seemed very powerful. The music and the voices are very descriptive of how people at that time felt. The music brings an extra dimension to the words.'

Writing for opera was, Chong adds, almost the opposite of writing a play: 'When I'm writing drama, I try to constrain my emotions. Drama is daily conversation, so you can't be too dramatic. It has to be ordinary. But in opera, you have to make all the characters extraordinary. It's big and it's loud, and allows you to really express your emotions. When I hear the words with the music in rehearsals, I feel like I'm flying.'

Fujian-born Chong, 34, is one of Hong Kong's best-known playwrights. A psychology and playwriting major, she began her writing career at the Chung Ying Theatre Company.

Alive In The Mortuary (2003), which focuses on an ageing Medecins Sans Frontieres volunteer in Angola, was an early success. French Kiss is a story about a pastor whose career is ruined by a sexual harassment case, while Murder In San Jos? is a psychological thriller set in the US. She has, to date, received four best-play awards at the Hong Kong Drama Awards. Chong is currently working in the US as translator for playwright David Henry Hwang's Chinglish, a bilingual tale about an American businessman's misadventures on the mainland.

It was no random decision to set Alive In The Mortuary and Murder In San Jose outside of Hong Kong. Chong, who travelled to Central Asia and South America as a scriptwriter for a television series, Stories From Afar, thinks that distance brings a fresh perspective on home.

'When you leave Hong Kong and stay in other countries, you can see Hong Kong more clearly,' she says. 'You can see your home more clearly from afar. When I meet people abroad, I wonder about the cultural differences that exist between us. That leads to thoughts about my own identity and the identity of Hong Kong.'

The playwright travelled to Belarus, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Argentina and the Dominican Republic for Stories from Afar that looked at the lives of Chinese people abroad. The experience as a scriptwriter changed the way she wrote her plays: 'In Hong Kong, playwrights do three or four jobs a year. You have to be really fast, and there's not always enough time for a lot of research.

'But doing documentaries introduced me to the process of deep research. I had to call the interviewees before I arrived, and get to know them. Then I would spend a few days with them. It made me realise how unique individuals are. It contrasted with what I learned in psychology, which makes you look for types. I like some of the theory of psychology but it tries to make people all the same. I don't buy that.'

Like most writers, Chong is loath to analyse her own work. But she will say she likes to focus primarily on her characters: 'My first degree is in psychology, and I like to examine personality, how you grow up, how you experience life and how your parents shape you. I like to dig deeply into human character.'

Some writers enjoy writing around a theme, or constructing intricate plots, rather than writing characters, she adds. ' I find that Asian writers often write about a theme - they focus on the message. At the beginning of my writing career, I did that too. But gradually I focused more on my characters.'

Chong is now in Chicago working with Hwang. She met the playwright while on a sojourn in New York, and he told her about the New York theatre scene. This led to a job translating for the new production: 'I showed him my play French Kiss and he gave me some advice. When he was looking for a translator for Chinglish he thought of me - not only am I a translator, I'm a playwright, too. As a playwright I understood what ideas he wanted to express, and I would work at it until I got it right.'

Chong became interested in playwriting when she took an elective course in theatre after studying psychology. She went on to study at the Hong Kong Academy For The Performing Arts and London's Royal Holloway College.

'As soon as I took the course, I realised that playwriting was my passion. I felt that writing was fulfilling my potential. It's said that the perfect occupation has three elements: one, you have to love it; two you have to be good at it; and three, it earns you a living. I feel that I have at least achieved one and two - I'm doing something I seem to be good at, and I like doing it.'